Deep Tissue Massage Vs. Swedish Massage

  • Jessica Maier Master of Science - MS, Florida State University, USA
  • Dr. Maria Weissenbruch Doctor (Ph.D.), Cell and Developmental Biology, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), Germany

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Whether you’re considering getting a massage for a recent injury or sore muscles, studying for an upcoming quiz, or simply have a general curiosity, this article is here to help you compare two common forms of massage: Swedish Massage vs Deep Tissue Massage. 

This article will systematically compare these two massage types to help consumers, athletes, students, and patients make more informed decisions for their health and continued wellness. 

To begin, we will outline what massage therapy is, the key characteristics of Swedish and deep tissue massage, and finally offer some information about when each massage is most commonly useful.  

What Is massage therapy?

Generally, both Swedish and deep tissue massages fall under what’s called massage therapy, which is the process of rubbing and kneading tissues of the body by a massage therapist. Massage therapy is prevalent and popular worldwide. In a 12-month study, it was estimated that up to 20% of the population visited a massage therapist, with the median being 5.5%.1 

Many seek massage therapy to treat stress and to gain relaxation. Research supports these claims, showing that massages that use moderate pressure have led to increased vagal activity (vagus nerve activity - which helps switch between your fight or flight response and relaxation), and decreased cortisol levels.2 Furthermore, there is evidence from brain imaging showing improved effects related to stress and emotion regulation.2 

Importantly, massage therapy can be used for a number of reasons beyond stress and relaxation. Some of these include:

  1. Pain (including body aches and headaches)3
  2. Sports injury4
  3. Cancer support5,6
  4. Anxiety and depression7 (including anxiety and depression caused by HIV/AIDS)8
  5. Other diseases such as fibromyalgia9

What is a swedish massage?

Swedish massage is the most common type of massage therapy in Western countries. The technique comes from Swedish doctor Pehr Henrik Ling who is credited for the Swedish massage that we know today.10 The process is described as the systematic application of manual pressure to move soft tissue, utilizing rhythmic pressure combined with stroking.11 The main goal of Swedish massage is to both obtain and maintain your health. 

What is a deep tissue massage?

Some massage therapists may differentiate deep tissue massage from just a deep massage, which can be defined simply as treating deep tissue by using any form of massage.12 In comparison, deep tissue massage uses a purposeful understanding of layers of the body to work with tissue in deep layers to target holding patterns by lengthening, relaxing, and releasing them.13 Massage therapists using deep tissue massage attempt to use the most energy-efficient method complimenting the needs and comfort of the client.13  

Comparing swedish massage and deep tissue massage: key characteristics 

Pressure and intensity

Swedish Massage uses light to moderate pressure with the main goal of relaxation, whereas the hallmark of a deep tissue massage is the strong and slow applied pressure in the massage strokes. Deep tissue massage is a much higher intensity as compared to Swedish massage. 

Techniques used

Swedish massage will incorporate long, fluid strokes with a light-to-firm touch. Swedish massage uses 5 basic techniques: 

  1. Effleurage14: circular stroking motions to warm up and soothe the body 
  2. Petrissage kneading: adding more pressure and implementing kneading and squeezing in a circular motion 
  3. Tapotement: repetitive and rapid striking on the body 
  4. Friction: used to increase circulation, it is applied through the fingers or even forearms and elbows to warm the body tissue 
  5. Vibration: rhythmic shaking to stimulate soft tissues of the body using either hands or a machine 

For deep tissue massage, therapists will use their fingers, knuckles, fists, forearms, and elbows to apply deep pressure to a particular area.13 This technique can be tailored to the individual and the body based on the treated area or injury. While it is considered a “hard” massage in terms of effort, deep tissue massage does not require great strength or body size.13

Targeted Areas

Swedish massage is mostly used for sore neck, back, and shoulders. Deep tissue massage is useful for more focal injuries and chronic pain of specific target areas including the common neck, back, and shoulders, plus the buttocks or legs.13 

Risks and benefits

Massage therapy is a great option for many because of the low risks, minimal side effects, and many physical and mental benefits. 


While risks are very low for massage therapy, rare side effects have been reported. Mainly, these have been seen in deep tissue massage, most likely due to the more vigorous nature of the technique. Rare but serious risks include spinal injury, stroke, and dislodging of blood clots. Because of these reasons, some patients have an increased risk such as the elderly population, those with blood clotting disorders, or high-competition athletes.   

Minor risks include muscle soreness following massage, bruising, and discomfort. You might expect to feel these since a recent study reported that 10% of 100 surveyed massage patients experienced discomfort following treatment.15 


Swedish Massage Benefits:

Swedish massage has been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety by decreasing vital signs in healthy women10. Specifically, participants showed lower blood pressure, pulse, and respiratory rate. Generally, Swedish massage has been linked to:

  • Relaxation
  • Stress Reduction
  • Improved Circulation

Deep Tissue Massage Benefits:

Deep Tissue Massage has been shown to help in alleviating pain and to encourage mobility, flexibility, and better posture.13 Generally, deep tissue massage has shown the following benefits:

  • Muscle tension release
  • Injury rehabilitation
  • Chronic pain management

Both massage types have a clear benefit in relieving pain.3 Critically, research has uncovered some ideas about the biological basis of these benefits. In a recent study, it was shown that massage is effective, in part, because it can suppress inflammation caused by exercise while promoting faster healing.16 

Which treatment is right for you?

Overall, a Swedish massage might be right for you if you are looking to manage stress or are seeking relaxation, are new to massage and want to try a lighter more common technique, or want a more broad body-area approach. 

If you have a sports injury, chronic pain, or other specific problems with a body area, deep tissue massage might be better for you. Comparatively, if you are elderly, prone to bone fractures, or have a lower pain tolerance, deep tissue massage may not be best and instead Swedish massage may be a good start. 

Choosing a massage therapy and therapist 

First, decide whether you are interested in pursuing a deep tissue massage or Swedish massage. When searching for a massage therapist, take into account the required training and certification that may be needed. Currently, each country and area therein holds varying levels of regulating massage therapy, meaning that your therapist may hold different licenses or certifications for practising. Always discuss your needs with a health care provider who can help you decide which method is right for you, and even help connect you with a reputable massage therapist. 


This article introduced massage therapy as a general practice with many proven health and wellness benefits. Two common forms of massage therapy are Swedish massage and deep tissue massage. 

Swedish massage is the most common technique in Western countries. It involves 5 basic techniques that encompass a variety of kneading, vibrating, rolling and tapping in order to improve circulation and relax the body and mind. Swedish massage has very low risk and has been shown to help with a number of diseases as well as provide general health benefits. 

Deep tissue massage is another common technique that implements harder pressure paired with focal body specificity to release deep tissue tension. This method is useful for chronic pain or injuries, but may not be for everyone due to its more intense nature. 

Overall, massage therapy is an amazing resource for healthy well-being. Swedish massage and deep tissue massage offer different and specific goals and advantages that depend on your unique situation.


  • Harris PE, Cooper KL, Relton C, Thomas KJ. Prevalence of visits to massage therapists by the general population: A systematic review. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice [Internet]. 2014 Feb [cited 2024 Jan 26];20(1):16–20. Available from:
  • Field T. Massage therapy research review. Complement Ther Clin Pract [Internet]. 2014 Nov [cited 2024 Jan 26];20(4):224–9. Available from:
  • 3. Buckenmaier C, Cambron J, Werner R, Buckenmaier P, Deery C, Schwartz J, et al. Massage therapy for pain—call to action. Pain Med [Internet]. 2016 Jul [cited 2024 Jan 26];17(7):1211–4. Available from:
  • Brummitt J. The role of massage in sports performance and rehabilitation: current evidence and future direction. N Am J Sports Phys Ther [Internet]. 2008 Feb [cited 2024 Jan 26];3(1):7–21. Available from:
  •  Shin ES, Seo KH, Lee SH, Jang JE, Jung YM, Kim MJ, et al. Massage with or without aromatherapy for symptom relief in people with cancer. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016 Jun 3;2016(6):CD009873.
  • Collinge W, MacDonald G, Walton T. Massage in supportive cancer care. Semin Oncol Nurs. 2012 Feb;28(1):45–54.
  • Rapaport MH, Schettler PJ, Larson ER, Carroll D, Sharenko M, Nettles J, et al. Massage therapy for psychiatric disorders. Focus (Am Psychiatr Publ) [Internet]. 2018 Jan [cited 2024 Jan 26];16(1):24–31. Available from:
  • Hillier SL, Louw Q, Morris L, Uwimana J, Statham S. Massage therapy for people with HIV/AIDS. Cochrane HIV/AIDS Group, editor. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews [Internet]. 2010 Jan 20 [cited 2024 Jan 26]; Available from:
  • Yuan SLK, Matsutani LA, Marques AP. Effectiveness of different styles of massage therapy in fibromyalgia: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Manual Therapy [Internet]. 2015 Apr 1 [cited 2024 Jan 26];20(2):257–64. Available from:
  • Gholami-Motlagh F, Jouzi M, Soleymani B. Comparing the effects of two Swedish massage techniques on the vital signs and anxiety of healthy women. Iran J Nurs Midwifery Res [Internet]. 2016 [cited 2024 Jan 26];21(4):402–9. Available from:
  • Barreto DM, Batista MVA. Swedish massage: a systematic review of its physical and psychological benefits. Adv Mind Body Med. 2017 Spring;31(2):16–20.
  • Koren Y, Kalichman L. Deep tissue massage: What are we talking about? J Bodyw Mov Ther. 2018 Apr;22(2):247–51. 
  • Riggs A. Deep tissue massage: a visual guide to techniques. Rev. ed. Berkeley, Calif: North Atlantic Books; 2007. 263 p.
  • Tiidus PM, Shoemaker JK. Effleurage massage, muscle blood flow and long-term post-exercise strength recovery. Int J Sports Med. 1995 Oct;16(7):478–83.
  • Cambron JA, Dexheimer J, Coe P, Swenson R. Side-effects of massage therapy: a cross-sectional study of 100 clients. J Altern Complement Med. 2007 Oct;13(8):793–6.
  • Crane JD, Ogborn DI, Cupido C, Melov S, Hubbard A, Bourgeois JM, et al. Massage therapy attenuates inflammatory signaling after exercise-induced muscle damage. Sci Transl Med [Internet]. 2012 Feb [cited 2024 Jan 26];4(119). Available from:

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Jessica Maier

Master of Science - MS, Florida State University, USA

Jessica is a medical writer with robust research experience in cognitive neuroscience and clinical neurodegeneration. Her published work spans topics from functional brain network interactions to disease diagnosis tools. She is a life-long learner, driven to gather information and synthesize complex subjects into understandable insights.

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